Sci-fi for grownups.
Alex Garland is becoming a master of science fiction with his elegant, haunting movies. The previews before this, his latest film, included many bloated, asinine futuristic movies like Pacific Rim (whatever sequel they’re on), CGI spectacles of crushing mayhem with recycled one-liners from the Hollywood cliché factory like “Let’s do this!”
For the love of God, let’s not.
Annihilation is not as sparse and minimalist as the excellent Ex-Machina, but I give thanks to the Gods of Cinema that Alex Garland exists to take us to strange, disturbing worlds. Annihilation is a story about change. It imagines what would happen if species could cross-pollinate. It imagines mutations. And mutations are scary. However, in this case, they can also be beautiful. A phenomenon called The Shimmer is happening in some part of the United States that looks like the South. An area has been covered in a layer of iridescence from which no one has been able to come back. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and ex-soldier that is mourning the disappearance of her husband, also a soldier, (Oscar Isaac) and she gets sucked into an expedition to find out what the hell is going on inside the Shimmer.
The movie is an experience. We tag along with Lena and her team, discovering strange, beautiful flora and bizarre mutated animals. This unusual group is comprised of four women, dressed as soldiers, carrying heavy backpacks and rifles. This is already a wonderfully jarring sight, and it makes us ponder how used and desensitized we are to men always calling every shot in the movies. It makes us envision the possibility that women can be protagonists in all kinds of stories, as they are here, and no male needs be there to steal their thunder. The women, all scientists and military, are led by Dr. Ventress, a psychologist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has herself mutated into a less mannered and much more compelling actress. Even though Portman is very good, Jason Leigh manages to rivet one’s attention with her commitment to be totally unlikable, yet somehow mysteriously sympathetic. The other women are played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny, all very good in skimpily written roles.
The movie has issues. I could not get the science straight and some of the effects of the Shimmer feel random, until you remember that mutations may not be completely foreseen or understood. It seems that each person who is overtaken by a mutation does so in a distinct way. Things are pretty until they get really ugly, and you wonder if some of the gory scenes are necessary, but I think Garland commits to the idea that nature is both beautiful and terrifying, and he does not pull punches. Interspersed with the exploration of the Shimmer, there is the story of change in the relationship between Lena and Kane, her husband, which grounds the movie in emotion as it reflects that love can mutate too.
Sometimes one quarrels with a film’s flimsy logic, but in the case of Annihilation, it doesn’t much matter. What matters is to let yourself go on the ride. What I loved most about this hypnotic film was how Garland creates a world of both delicate beauty and gory horror with his customary economy of style. He could have gone for heavy visual effects, but the Shimmer envelops everything in a fine iridescent mist the colors of oil in water. Overall, the effects are delicate and fantastic, and I strongly recommend you watch this film on a big screen with a great sound system. The eerie music score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is magnificent. Like Stanley Kubrick, Garland likes to stage long, quiet sequences. He also does not try to explain everything. He trusts his images, which are spectacular. This movie has echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly in a beautifully trippy, silent sequence towards the end. Annihilation is, like that great film, about humans coming to terms with the other, and through the other, with ourselves.
I was nostalgic of Kubrick because we have been living for decades in a movie world that has infantilized and dumbed down science fiction to (I don’t care if you hate my guts) endless stupid Star Wars franchises, and worse. There are very few movies that explore what is outside us with intelligence or grace, let alone stylishness. I thought also of Jonathan Glazer’s excellent Under The Skin, and Blade Runner 2049, which was moody and still. We need more eerie, haunting sci-fi movies like these.